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The best novels focus on true to life characters, who swim and thrive against the tide of events. What has been interesting is how limited the purview of modern literati is in terms of identifying novels of note. Books that step outside the boundaries of wringing the profound out of the mundane living  American Rural or the Big City tend to be scoffed at.

What I found so stunning and effective about Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy: Nexus, Crux, and Apex, is because of how recognizable the motivations and actions of his characters are. First and foremost, the series is a thriller that explores ideas about not yet existing technology that can very much arrive in the next few decades. But the novels encapsulate, more so than white papers, policy articles from think tanks, or academic research, the human tensions of a new telepathy/mind-link/brain control technology.

If one were to ask what humans would do with such new devices, one needs to look no further than Nexus in order to get a realistic snapshot.

What made the novel so thought provoking? Probably because Naam did not shy away from the abuses of the technology. Nexus, in this novel, is a nanoparticle computer network that one can inject into the brain. The idea is that the particles can monitor and influence neural networks. Coupled with wireless packet transmission, it effectively enables mind-to-mind linkage, and control.

Needless to say, abuses are nefarious; body hijackings, slavery, murder, rape, drug-like stimulatory usages – all are in the novel. The last point is probably the flavor most consistent with why such devices would be made: therapeutic purposes.

Presumably, if these particles can localize to the brain (and possible elsewhere in the body), the dream is to be able to perform fine-scale monitoring of aberrant body processes and deliver precise therapy. The mind-link capability could potentially be driven by new approaches in treating mental illness. Probably the most profound use might be for enabling normative ways of communicating between loved ones who have autistic family members. Another key reason might be to enable joining of minds to enhance performance; the simple case might be in sports or within an orchestra, but more likely, such direct networking can benefit the military and using groups of humans as massively powerful distributed computing network.

Although there have been great strides in brain-machine interfaces for vision, we are a ways away from being able to replace the eye.

However, my sense is that a true Nexus like technology can be immensely function to cause harm, as soon as the technology is released. It will probably be co-opted into tools for body control, torture and rape, just because it should be easier to cause paralysis and induce base emotions.

So, in these contexts, with the immense potential for abuse and nearly limitless potential, is it worth it to pursue this technology? Further, is it a meaningless question? The premise of human dignity tends to be a Western concept. In other cultures, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. That type of culture tends to respect the group, perhaps at the expense of the individual. In that context, can anyone reasonably expect a lack of research into such technologies, based on the concept of individual rights? If anything, there are more countries that are ostensibly authoritarian than not; I would not be surprised if the technology arose precisely because a government wishes to exert control, rather than from, say, the healthcare sector.

Naam has a distinct view; for one, his main characters, and generally what one attributes as the viewpoints with which an author is most aligned, tend to be more libertarian of the USA variety. It’s the usual gun lobby approach: the technology does not harm; humans do. There is a strong counter balance to this viewpoint, but what we are left with, in the novel, is a technology that is released into the wild, with no oversight, but dependent on most people doing “good”.

I’m not sure. Despite Naam’s ostensible viewpoint, I am left ambivalent. I’m not sure if this technology should develop, let alone be released, considering the potential for private, corporate and governmental abuse.

So what is the point of thinking about the Nexus Trilogy in the context of projecting what amounts to technology governance policy? Isn’t something like this best left to policy wonks?

Well, it goes back to my point: the best novels provoke thought. In this case, it isn’t so much the technology or how realistic the science is. The question remains, how will humans react/interact with the device or circumstance?

 

It is precisely the intersection of humans and technology that we should focus on. The response of humanity to technology is not written on a blank slate. Technology is introduced in the context of, first a few humans, and then society. We can draw from past examples to see how technology affects the economy. We can assess how technologies altered power relationships among different groups. These would of course be actual anthropological, archaeological, and historical studies.

Sometimes, however, a novel – even from genre fiction – that places realistic constraints on human reaction and motivations can cut through the noise and expose the heart of the problem.

 

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I had been thinking about ebooks lately; the upcoming Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire are the final nails in the coffin for the book publishing industry. Ebooks are simply a commodity, and one that produces less revenue than either music or video. Static ebooks, resembling ink-on-paper, will be superceded by a product that fully embraces the possibilities given it by tablet based computers. What I am about to say comes sounds reactionary, perhaps even downright Luddite in today’s world: the reader demographic I belong to is being discarded.

I think I am that rare beast (20-35 years of age, male) who had avoided action movies, sports books (well, not sports statistics, but I would argue that falls under economics and math), video games (ever since I received my bachelor’s degree), and cars (I’m a big fan of public transport.) When I was ten, I made a conscious decision to listen only to classical music (I have been a listener of WGBH radio and Classical Radio Boston since that time). What I bugged my parents most about was shuttling me to the library, at least until I was old enough to get there on my own. When I was a teenager, I took piano lessons from a jazz and blues teacher; however, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind teaching me Beethoven instead. So yes, I admit I’m a strange duck. The point is that I’m probably not the mainstream market.

With regards to reading technology, I agree absolutely with people like Neil Postman and Nicholas Carr (among others), who argue that we are leaving the era of densely organized, linear narrative literacy into a mode of literacy designed for cursory scanning, link following, and 140-character phrasings. Although both these writers took pains to explain things in neutral terms, one cannot help but see their disgust and despair at the world having the opportunity to choose either a rich internal, mental life or one based on satisfying emotional impulses, pitch headlong to the latter.

Both these men phrased the argument in these terms: literacy, that of constructing arguments based on weaving facts and rhetoric and placing it into a written form enabled the formation of intellect and wisdom. The act of writing onto paper rendered a permanence to thoughts that required the author to consider and respect each and every word. Once published, the words cannot be so easily retracted and fixed. But the true innovation is that readers can refer to previous statements made in the text, something that simply cannot be done had the author been limited to speaking. Thus the book enabled complex arguments due to its ability for cross-referencing. Complex arguments can be delivered as one coherent unit of thought.

One might argue that web-enabled documents should enhance the concept of books, providing ease in cross-referencing and primary source access. However, that is generally not the case. While reading texts on screens is as efficient as reading on paper, when hypertext links are introduced, reading comprehension decreases. Once links are present, it seems readers can’t help but to follow them, especially to other articles. Ironically, overall, reading comprehension for the text they were originally reading goes down. It isn’t clear that the readers could distinguish between the multiple articles they read. Thus source attribution becomes problematic. It might not matter in every day speech, but if one wishes to write informed op/ed pieces or scholarly works, one might see how it can be inefficient.*

* Source misattribution need not be limited to heavy internet users; I remember a flap with Doris Goodwin Kearns, who was found to have plagiarized from another scholar in her book on the Kennedys. She accepted responsibility for her misuse of quotes, although her defense was carelessness and not malice. She lost track of her notes and mixed up passages she wrote with those written by others. I think, for a scholar, carelessness is a greater offense than stealing, but that’s like arguing whether being killed in a hail of bullets is worse than being killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Despite these episodes, one can see that books lend themselves to being literal dividers among different “thoughts”. On the web, HTML addresses serve that purpose. Who among us, however, pay that much attention to them as identifiers? At any rate, taking care might compensate for these lapses, but apparently, a majority of people do not take care (hence the likely decrease in comprehension and increase in confusing different authors.) Online texts become a data slush.

Books engage readers unimodally, making it difficult to access other source materials. Follow-up probably requires some selection and distinction by readers, to waste the least amount of time. One might save himself a lot of time in a library or bookstore by simply thinking about what was written and identifying the most fruitful line of research, then acting on it. This is probably the “virtuous cycle” engendered by books. Without the distraction of clicking on links or even doing something else (like playing games, watching YouTube, or making iTunes playlists), one’s attention is captured by the writer and his own thinking processes. If you value choosing, more often than not, things that make you think, you might place a premium on identifying works of distinction for reading, constantly sorting books into the “literary” and “genre” piles or marking non-fiction as “scholarly” or “polemical” (you know, like being an elitist snob?)

Neither Carr nor Postman feels  technology is neutral, because new technology brings the possibility of drastic change into an existing culture. This can certainly be tempered by our exercising selectivity when adopting and using new tech. But we don’t do that; Americans in particular have rarely felt need to hinder acceptance of technology, generally feeling new machines and methods can be simply mapped to existing routines. It is rare for humans to realize the potential that the new has to overwrite the old.

We also seem unable to accept that there are such things as intrinsic differences, and that describing the differences do not necessarily imply “goodness” or “badness”. Instead, contrasts are turned into a line of battle, and one list must vanquish the other. I have noticed that when people talk about the pros and cons of ebooks, they focus on the differences between reading on a screen and reading black-text-on-white-paper. People talk about ink versus pixel density, smells, tangibles, marginalia, and so forth. I had always found these arguments silly. Both systems convey words quite well and aesthetics is a secondary concern, while the true difference is that one is reading a relatively invariant, single-purpose object or from a computer.

One might want to keep in mind the differences that each engender, and then take steps to choose the right tools for the job. For example, web pages lend themselves to displaying news. The style of brevity, the need for immediacy, and the ability for multimedia presentations offer readers a variety of reports and primary audio/visual supporting materials. Interactive pictures (Flash animals, Javascript, and so on) suit themselves into longer magazine like articles. The very nature of link heavy, multimedia extravaganza, however, detracts from the single purpose and mindedness of books. In my experience reading on e-readers, computers, laptops, and tablets, I have not come across the “all-business” approach of book. A writer can simply tell his story, present evidence, furnish a descriptive table of contents, and simply get out of my way.

But there is one difference between my take on screen based reading technologies from those of Postman and Carr. I have never had the problem of distraction when reading or writing with tablets or desktop PCs. One reason is that I spend time to find the best piece of software to let me read in the way that I want. Sure, I am particular about minutiae like margin width, font face and font size, but once set, I do not fuss with settings. I’m more concerned with optimizing my ‘read-flow”. On my Nook color,  I got rid of stock Nook Color (well, I run CM7.1 off an SD card. I have a soft spot for B&N right now, considering that I think that Amazon will drive them out of business) because the Nook’s reading software does not hook into Evernote. Also, the Nook version of Evernote was at an earlier version than for the general Android market (it’s been corrected since, but I still can’t share directly into it from the NC reader).

The base NC OS also does not allow for widgets; one thing I love about Evernote for the Android market is the expanded widget, which shows 3 previews of your most recent notes. You can either add a new note or tap the preview to go directly to that note. With rich text formatting, I can now copy and paste interesting quotes from the ereader software, change formatting, write a few thoughts, and go back to my e-book.

This might seem inefficient. It is. For all-in-one note taking, I like MoonReader. However, it does not support CSS for formatting ebooks properly. Well, it has a mode where it displays CSS using Android’s native HTML renderer. Unfortunately, the book is essentially displayed as a web page, and the user can no longer highlight or annotate text. WIth that said, most ebooks can be read with basic paragraph indentations. For non-fiction, it’s a non-starter. It can be hard to tell whether the author wrote something or if he set something of into block-quotes. I’ve gone back to Aldiko. Selecting text across pages is no longer a problem. I just copy/paste in two segments.

Why do I like this inefficiency? I’ve found that when it’s easy to make notes, I made morethan when I composed my notes carefully. I realized that using the internal highlighting function creates the college textbook phenomenon: where a large portion of the text is highlighted by the student, but without marginalia. I intentionally made it less convenient for myself by copying the relevant passsage in another program. This means I have introduced an immediate cost in my note taking, and everytime I do so, I have to disrupt my reading flow. As a result, I annotate in ebooks the way I mark up actual paper books. I do bracket an important passaage or two, but write a summary, objections, citations to contrary arguments and publicstions, or questions in the margin. I try reading larger segments of the book, pick a salient quote, and write a small summary of the arguments.

I see this as adapting technology to my reading, as opposed to letting tools change the way I read. Yes, I spent a little time with metareading, trying to find my comfort and thinking about what I want in my software. Before I got my NookColor, I read on the phone, and before that, I had a Palm/Compaq/HP PDA. Then, I tended to read fiction (due to terrible inefficencies with annotations – this was the PalmPilot days) on the PDA, and reserved non-fiction readings to books I owned. I also read a lot more library books than I do now.

So I never wrung my hands over reading ebooks, because I made a conscious effort to do my e-reading in a way where my ability to think, ruminate, and write is preserved. I spent some time adjusting the software for my comfort. But I don’t see that as any different from setting up a reading nook, a den, or a writing desk. I’ve seen writers do something similar with their computer setups, selecting programs that simply shows text: no menus, no fonts, no styles, maximized workspace so that they  cannot see the other programs that beckon for their mouse clicks. It is unlikely that most consumers will make that effort to use ther tools in such a precise manner. That is the very distinction between power users and regular consumer users.

And this is what I mean by the Nook Tablet signaling the end of a bookcentric reading demographic. No, I am not discounting genre readers. But I think the segmentation is between “literary”/”genre” readers vs. the mass of non-readers. it has always been thus. Think about the books on the NY Times bestsellers: I am sure any aficionado can suggest better alternatives within a particular genre. The most popular books are not always the best books.

However, I’m not worried about some abstract notion of quality; I do worry that book sellers and publishers who treat literature as a market (and it is their right to do so) will not exercise the selectivity that could result in good literature. I am not saying that popular books are all bad, and that good literary works can’t be popular. I am saying that shrewd business men who happen to have chosen to make their money in publishing (although one might argue that making money from books isn’t so shrewd) will make decisions based on the bottom line. This will lead to decisions that won’t make sense for book lovers, but might sense if one is simply trying to capture dollars from non-readers.

So we will see sellers use the internet to the best they can: data mining, marketing to niches, fine slicing of market segments, i.e. a continuation of market splintering. The mass market  won’t be literary minded people, who enjoy reading for its own sake, and perhaps with broad interests. I guess I am saying that there are fewer cross genre readers than there are consumers who are simply satisfy their narrow interests among different media types. Hey, we can’t expect anything from free market econonmics, geared to finding the cheapest way to pull in the biggest income.

And so a book seller sees a need to build an ereader that is actually a general purpose computer (i.e. Nook Color and Nook Tablet.) I suppose the Nook Color is a book-centric tablet, but with each update, it’s gained multimedia functions. That is what is demanded and needed to compete with Amazon and Apple’s iPad. This point is underscored by popular e-book bloggers and publishing industry watchers. In fact, Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader prefers the Nook Tablet to the Kindle Fire because of the Nook’s media capabilities.

There is no conspiracy or malice. Just a bunch of smart people, doing the best they can to make the most money for their companies. They wind up selecting the biggest market segments and cater their wares to them. Consumers will buy products that they think will serve them best. And so we’ll see more e-books that are app like, with embedded videos, music, links, and interactive figures. The concept of a linear, comprehensive narrative will be superceded by apps amenable to updates and upgrades. I’m not immune to this; I can see how attractive having an interactive Cat in the Hat story app would be to a child. But then these aren’t “books” in the traditional sense, nor are they even “e-books”. They are book based apps.

Is this bad? Not from a market standpoint. It’s probably where the money’s at. And I’d be the last person to begrudge another his ability to make money to feed his family. I’m not even decrying the fact that we aren’t practicing wisdom, but leaning on market research, in choosing the products we make and sell. It’s like choosing a web search engine (Bing? Google?), an app market ecosystem (Google’s? Amazon’s? Barnes and Noble’s? Apple’s?), a cloud storage service (Dropbox? Ubuntu One?), or an OS (Win? Linux? MacOS?). Each choice leads to a different array of probabilities and paths one can take. It also tells companies how they can behave in order to capture our choices and dollars. And because the momentum of the mass market is towards apps and general purpose computers – not ebook readers, that’s exactly where we will end up.

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